Coronavirus conspiracy theories are a dime a dozen, from those contending that wearing a piece of cloth on your face is a form of tyranny, to the anti-vaccine contingent of yesteryear. There are those who think the whole pandemic is a hoax (nearly two million dead notwithstanding), that Bill Gates will implant chips in our bodies if we take the jabs (perhaps he can help me better manage my life), and that the vaccine will somehow change our DNA, even though people continue to trust Pfizer to manufacture drugs like Viagra.
These conspiracy theories would be laughable if they were not causing real damage. Whether it’s individuals spreading the virus and sickening their families and communities because they don’t believe in it, a pharmacy worker who destroys badly needed vaccine doses because he believes in the conspiracies, or vaccine hesitancy leaving people vulnerable and hindering efforts towards universal immunity, the outcome can be deadly. Poor communication and politicisation of public health can only worsen those effects.
Many of these conspiracy theories have naturally made their way to the Middle East, spread via social memes and messaging apps, and even boosted by careless leaders and politicians, who are complicit in the death and sickening of their own citizenry. Conspiracies easily take hold amid fear and uncertainty, and Covid-19 has delivered both in spades.
Take Lebanon, for example. The country had largely managed to avoid high infection rates in the first few months of the pandemic, until a cataclysmic explosion in August incinerated the Beirut port and much of the city, rendering 300,000 people homeless. Since then, cases have increased exponentially, and now average nearly 3,000 new infections a day after the holiday period. Economically devastated, Lebanon is facing a doomsday scenario.
But rather than pledge to do all they can to arrest the spread of the virus, Lebanon's leaders have vacillated. President Michel Aoun's spokesman said he hadn't decided whether or not to take the vaccine a few days before signing a deal with Pfizer, only to retract the statement hours later. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said he would not take what he described as the "American vaccine" (it was not clear if he was referring to the Moderna vaccine or Pfizer's, which isn't "American").
Elsewhere in the region, the virus has continued to wreak havoc, particularly in countries devastated by war (few believe government figures). Syria has reported nearly 12,000 cases but most observers believe the numbers are orders of magnitude higher. Iraq has 600,000 cases, and Iran stands at 1.2 million. Egypt has reported 144,000 cases, which experts believe could be an undercount; the health minister was recently photographed while masked at a wedding in which many guests were not wearing face covers, and there are few restrictions in place. Morocco has nearly half a million cases, and Tunisia, Libya and Algeria have over 100,000. Turkey’s case count has exploded to 2.2 million, and Jordan, originally a poster child of effectively dealing with the pandemic, has seen infections balloon to 300,000.
The fallout from the coronavirus conspiracy theories is particularly sad because most Arab countries will have to wait much longer for universal vaccination anyway. While rich countries in the G20 have been able to pre-order several times their total populations in vaccine doses, many of the poorer Arab countries can only afford to procure a fraction of the vaccines they need to inoculate the entire population and must rely on international alliances such as Covax to make up for the rest. Many are unlikely to vaccinate their entire populations before late next year, leaving the countries that are least able to afford lockdowns battling the virus for much longer. The prospect prompted last week a preposterous statement by a top Syrian public health official, who said the delays would make the virus cheaper, even as it adds to Syria's woes.
That is why it is imperative on Arab leaders – particularly in countries with devastated healthcare systems, little to no belief in the reliability of the official narrative, and dangerously high levels of infection – to take the initiative to combat misinformation and increase public trust in vaccines, if we are to overcome this crisis and emerge bloodied but unbowed.
It will not be enough to simply obtain vaccine doses. It is imperative that Arab leaders demonstrate their commitment to public health measures, including wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing, and rebuild trust in public health institutions. Remarkably a number of countries have done the opposite. Faced with ailing economies, they have chosen to ignore the virus’s second and third waves, enacting few measures to protect their citizens, and have even dabbled in vaccine hesitancy and in flouting public health measures. Every day they do nothing costs lives. Continuing to do nothing to combat coronavirus conspiracy theories and misinformation will make it enormously harder to lift their nations out of the grip of the pandemic.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National